Microsoft Visio has become the standard network diagramming tool for many IT professionals, and the poll results in Figure A reflect this. However, as TechRepublic members pointed out in a recent article on network documentation, admins should be aware that there are also other effective diagramming tools, including a very capable freeware tool. Admins should also note that, although Visio Enterprise Network Tools—an add-on to Visio 2002—has been discontinued, there are alternatives that offer the same functionality.

Figure A

Visio 2002 and autodiscovery
One of the most useful network diagramming features for IT professionals documenting large network segments is autodiscovery. This feature, which is available in numerous diagramming products, uses SNMP to discover SNMP-enabled devices and systems and then automatically populates these devices in a diagram.

Visio 2000 Enterprise Edition included this feature in the form of its Discovery Wizard, which could detect and diagram a network and automatically diagram a Microsoft Active Directory or Novell Directory Services structure. It could also build a database schema to allow for reverse engineering of databases.

However, with the release of Visio 2002, Microsoft reorganized the product. It began offering Visio 2002 Standard and Visio 2002 Professional (which contains the additional tools and features for IT professionals to create technical diagrams).

At that point, Microsoft stopped offering the Enterprise Edition, replacing it with Visio Enterprise Network Tools—intended to be an add-on to Visio 2002 Professional. Unfortunately, Microsoft has now discontinued the Visio Enterprise Network Tools due to low sales, as pointed out by TechRepublic member coxmcse.

This means that you can longer buy a version of Visio that does autodiscovery of network devices and systems, which is significant. A recent IT Consultant poll (Figure B) showed that Visio was the tool most consultants would choose for network autodiscovery. Several TechRepublic members decried the fact that Visio no longer offers an autodiscovery option, while others suggested alternative diagramming software that does provide that capability.

Figure B

Alternatives to Visio
Members recommended Network View, WhatsUp Gold, SolarWinds, Netformx, and NetViz for automatically discovering and diagramming network equipment.

“I manage networks at three schools. I’ve found Network View an excellent tool for discovery and illustration of the networks,” ittech wrote.

“Whatsup Gold is a very good tool…I use it to monitor more than 200 devices,” raj.c said, adding that it includes autodiscovery as well.

Member cwdunnls pointed to a company that offers several documentation products, including one that can bring autodiscovery to Visio.

“Netformx puts out a great program called Cisco Network Designer. Version 5 is the latest and greatest release. You can log on to their Web site to find more info on versions and pricing. Some of them are expensive.”

To read more member comments on the various products, click here to go straight to the discussion. This article offers information about some of the pitfalls of autodiscovery. For an annotated list of software tools that offer autodiscovery, take a look at this article.

A diagramming tool that’s free and effective
Autodiscovery issue aside, members suggested a number of other diagramming packages. Most notably, mike.hoppe recommended a freeware tool called Network Notepad. Don’t be fooled by the price tag. This is a full-feature diagramming program. Although it does lack autodiscovery, it compares well to other diagramming software and even offers some unique features, such as point-and-click Telnet access to equipment shown in a diagram.

Final word
Visio can build some great diagrams. And because it’s widely used, it’s easy to share diagrams with other departments, business units, and outside organizations. Nevertheless, Visio currently does not offer an autodiscovery package, which can be a significant drawback for admins working with large networks.

If you’re searching for alternatives, these member suggestions may point you in the right direction. And if you simply want to build some basic network drawings (especially in smaller networks), you should definitely give Network Notepad a look.